In saying this, Banks is trying to be reassuring. But the paparazzi have no sympathy for the stars. "This is a working town, and fame is something you have to maintain," says Smith, the Splash News chief. "It's like fitness: You have to do it everyday to keep it going; we are part of that."
In 2007, Smith landed the most lucrative deal in company history when Anna Nicole Smith died. The Splash paparazzi took footage of the model-turned-actress en route to the hospital, when she was presumably already dead. His agency raked in more than $1 million from the coup, Smith says. When asked if his work might be considered irreverent, he says: "The marketplace is the greatest democracy in the world. There is a demand for this kind of pictures."
Serving this market is now up to Shenk, the Corbis CEO in Seattle. With the help of Splash News, he hopes to finally turn Corbis into a money-making machine. Twelve Corbis offices and more than 1,000 employees worldwide are now ready to work in the paparazzi-photo business.
"There is a global appetite for celebrity pictures that is insatiable; consumers will never get tired of looking at beautiful people," Smith says.
As recently as 2008, Shenk said that the celebrity-snapshot business was bad for the industry's overall image. But now he raves about photos that, as he says, tell "stories about humanity."
"I don't think that this market will ever go down," he says. "This is about dreams and people's connections to dreams, and that's a perpetual human feeling and instinct that will continue forever."
Shenk recently discussed the acquisition with Corbis founder Bill Gates. "I could assure him that we have incredibly high standards about making sure that ethical lines are not crossed," Shenk says.
Besides, he adds, Gates knows perfectly well that he is also part of the celebrity world. "I fully expect that Splash will cover him," Smith says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan